Seattle to Malheur to Astoria I

All in one week. Unintentional (and preventable) but it started with a gull. A very rare gull, which is how I explained it to Tomas when I asked if he minded we leave for vacation a little later than planned. With his blessing I left work immediately, hopped in the car with Jen and we made our way towards Seattle.

The detour paid off with good scope views and terrible photos of a…

Nope, not that goose. Much farther out.

Swallow-tailed Gull! The one on the left (use some imagination). But it was there! All the way from the Galápagos. A gull that feeds nocturnally on fish and squid. Don’t ask how it got there, but I’m glad it did. Some day hopefully I’ll get better looks at the islands, because we couldn’t hang out with this one longer this day.

Four hours later, back in Portland I met Tomas to start our four hour drive southeast. I volunteered to drive and pay for a hotel room since we got off to such a late start. Tomas drove an additional two and by midnight we’d made it to Burns. In the morning we found the desert.

Not long after, I found birds. We visited “The Narrows,” a small channel once much larger connecting Mud Lake and Malheur Lake. Due to various reasons including drought and carp, there isn’t much water left now. Even still, many birds congregate at this muddy stopover. Some of the highlights:

White-faced Ibis

Black-necked Stilt

Forster’s Tern

More White-faced Ibis

Juvenile Black-crowned Night Heron

Gobs of Gadwall

The occasional Peregrine flyover

Franklin’s Gull (and Black-necked Stilt)

Pied-billed Grebe or bowling pin

Western Grebe

There were also egrets and heron on site, easy ones like Snowy Egret, Great Egret, Great Blue Heron, and these next couple of complicated birds that I almost don’t want to mention. They are difficult birds to ID and neither one fits neatly in a box. Some call them Hegrets. They’re somewhere between a Little Blue Heron and Cattle Egret with features of each.

Don’t look so innocent with those dusky tail feathers. What are you?

The weirdest find were two dead Red-necked Phalaropes near the road.  Wth.

RIP phalarope

We got stuck in a few cattle drives which was entertaining at first, but grew old quickly after dodging endless piles of stubborn cows.

Once beyond the bovine we finally made it to Malheur Headquarters, at last reopened to the public.

It was nice to see it in the hands of the park service. As it should be. Nothing unusual bird-wise here, Rufous Hummingbird, Caspian Tern, Greater Yellowlegs, Killdeer, Say’s Phoebe, and so many Yellow-headed Blackbirds.

While I birded the grounds, Tomas spent time in the museum sketching a Golden Eagle.

It was late afternoon and hot, hot, hot by this time so we headed towards our lodging destination, the Frenchglen Hotel.

We were excited to see what else we could find in the desert.

Peekaboo.

(No grasshoppers were harmed in the making of this blog post.)

Tweets and chirps,

Audrey

Lincoln City to the sewage ponds

So of course the following weekend I decided to practice my newfound shorebird knowledge. Especially when I saw a report of Wandering Tattlers in Lincoln City. I forgot that I’ve seen one once before on a fence post in Hawaii. Someone should really keep track of these things (Ebird).

But I’d never seen one in Oregon so it’s different.

The fog was thick on the beach when I arrived, but not too thick to spot the Spotted Sandpiper.

Muddy brown above, (no spots because it’s fall), dark brown “comma” on its side, bold eye ring, and bobbing its tail.

Not too far away, I saw a group of birds out on the rocks.

Tattlers! Wandering too close to the waves.

“Wandering” because of their wide distribution across the ocean, and tattler for the “tattling” call if you get too close. Once the sun came out, I had a hard time staying away.

They’re gray all over with a white belly, yellow legs, and a moderately long straight bill. And they like to eat creepy crawly crustaceans off the rocks.

Mmm, yum. Efficient wanderers.

They were so fun to watch I could have stayed all day, but I had another plan in mind. But before I got too far, while passing the sand dunes, I looked to my left and spotted an angel.

That turned out to be a Lark Sparrow in the fog.

A rare bird for the area so a pretty cool sighting. I watched it for a while as it hung out with old man White-crowned Sparrow.

My next stop was an hour and a half drive southeast to the Philomath Sewage Ponds in hopes of another rare bird.

But when I rolled up I saw some signage that gave me pause.

Dang it. I hadn’t known beforehand about the permit and I’m a rule follower so I drove the 6 minutes to the Public Works Office. But the office was closed. So I drove back to the ponds, thought hard about it and decided to ask for forgiveness if necessary. I try to bird on the up-and-up because I don’t want to give birders a bad rep. This time I’d just go in for a minute to take a peek.

It all felt normal. Driving on the levee? Normal. The color of that water? Totally normal, everything’s fine.

Nothing to see here, green feet are par for the course. Everything’s fine.

It didn’t take long to pick out the rare bird swimming in the pond, the American Avocet.

It was cooperative and even popped out for a bit to preen at the edge of the ponds.

The green water goes well with its legs. Elegant as ever it returned to the sewage water and swam up next to three Long-billed Curlews. Another rarity for the area.

The risk was certainly paying off so far. At least in bill length.

I drove around again getting a shorebird workout with a Least Sandpiper (yellow legs, short bill).

Western Sandpiper (longer bill with slight droop, black legs, reddish “shoulders”).

And Greater Yellowlegs hunting at the edge of the ponds with those bright yellow legs.

And a bill length greater than half proportion with the head that expertly picks out pond treats.

Once more around I found a flock of Red-necked Phalaropes swimming in the middle.

Thin, fine bill, dark eye stripe, stripes on their backs, these turned out to be a lifebird!

Good things turned up in these ponds! I’m glad I gave them a go. It was late afternoon by then but a rare-bird alert of an American Redstart at the North Jetty in Newport was too tempting to resist. I got cocky.

I drove the hour back to Newport, but all I found were a handful of birders who’d been looking for a couple of hours under the bridge.

Win some, lose some, but I still felt pretty lucky this time!

Tweets and chirps,

Audrey

Shorebirds!

That is genuine enthusiasm. Not excited? Here’s an adorable Semipalmated Plover to ease some of the discomfort.

Fall migration is happening and I am facing it head on. Because I went to Smith and Bybee Lakes and totally failed at identifying birds. I forgot how hard it is.

There’s hundreds of shorebirds there, and I had trouble identifying one of them. So I do that thing that I do when I can’t figure something out on my own. I seek out help. That same week I logged on to Portland Audubon’s classes, and to my luck I saw “Learn to Identify Fall Shorebirds” with John Rakestraw. And it wasn’t full.

John is the same instructor who teaches the Gull ID class and Warblers and Flycatchers, as well as many others. He even wrote a book, Birding Oregon. I was in good hands.

In the classroom we learned of the 20 or so shorebirds that visit the Oregon coast and Willamette Valley. We looked at large slides of birds and called out the field marks. It’s all about the field marks; the shape of the bird, size of the head vs. the bill, the color of the legs, and the bird’s behavior. It’s knowing what to look at for each bird. This is the key.

Long-billed Dowitchers prefer freshwater ponds, whereas Short-billed Dowitchers like tidal marshes and estuaries, so location and habitat can also provide clues. It’s all part of a puzzle and that’s what makes it fun.

Our field trip fun started one foggy morning at Seaside looking at birds on the rocks.

Or really birds that look like rocks. We found a pile of Black Turnstones. We hoped to pick out a Ruddy Turnstone, but none showed up this time. We dipped out on shorebirds at a couple more spots until we lucked out on some birds that look like mud.

That’s two Western Sandpipers on the left and one Semipalmated Plover on the right. Westerns have black legs and long droopy bills. Semi Plovers have one breast band.

We also saw Caspian Terns soaring above the water, and I didn’t notice until looking at photos later, this one has a yellow leg band.

We made it to Fort Stevens State Park but there was still low shorebird activity.

Until we looked in the distance.

We walked farther down the beach to get a closer look.

But trucks are allowed to drive on the shore here and they’d scattered the flock.

Eventually we got looks at more Western Sandpipers, and even had a Semipalmated Sandpiper in the mix for comparison.

All Westerns – long, droopy bill, black legs.

Western Sandpiper (L), Semipalmated Sandpiper (R)

Westerns and Semipalmated look almost identical except Semipalmated Sandpipers have a short blunt bill. It was tough to get good looks before the flocks moved along. Shorebirds not cooperating? Let’s look at gulls!

California Gull – dark eye, red and black in the bill, yellow-greenish legs

And some of my favorite gulls were visiting, Heermann’s Gulls. Two E’s two N’s, orange bills, unmistakable.

John admitted shorebird numbers seemed unusually low. We missed out on Sanderlings, Black-bellied Plovers, and a few others. We checked back at Seaside, but found nothing new. Except jousting crabs.

The one above lived to tell the tale but I can’t say the same for this one.

We made another stop at Seafarer’s Park near the Hammond’s Marina where we found a Common Murre swimming out of place this far up the river.

The best action of the day came next.

Apparently Heermann’s Gulls are pirates! They wait for a Brown Pelican to dive, before pouncing and trying to pry the meal out of the pelican’s gullet.

Neat stuff. I felt bad for the pelican, but they’re not exactly known as saints either.

The shorebirds were so few at the coast we made an extra stop at Fernhill Wetlands on the way back. But the day was hot and the heat waves made it difficult to see the birds in the distance. I’ll spare you the blurry photos of the Spotted Sandpiper, Long-billed Dowitcher, and Least Sandpipers. Here’s a pair of Greater Yellowlegs instead.

That bill looks like it’s twice the length of the head and those are some nice yellow legs. Bird identified. It might seem obvious, but if there’s one take-home message of the day it’s that there are limitations. Sometimes the birds are too far, or they move too quickly; distance, weather, terrain, trucks, there’s so many obstacles, but it’s important to focus on what can be seen and not get discouraged.

And when that doesn’t work, stay at home and make flash cards!

Nothing to it.

Moving along, we got good looks of a juvenile Cooper’s Hawk.

And a Green Heron oddly perched out in the open.

Not enough shorebirds in my shorebirds post? How about brown ducks instead.

Just kidding. I’ll save the Cinnamon Teal for later and keep my eyes peeled for more peeps to identify in the mean time.

Learning new things every day.

Tweets and chirps,

Audrey